Fire veteran looks back over 50 years

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By John Keast

Graeme Baker was out laying carpet when his pager went off – and he could see the smoke.

He realised its source and he felt sick: it was the family business in East Street, Ashburton.

The 50-year fire veteran was in charge that day, overseeing the crews that helped put out the fire in the carpet business he ran with his brothers Ken and Maurice.

“One side of it was destroyed. The other was smoke-logged.”

It was a bad moment for Ashburton deputy fire chief, who has notched up 50 years as a volunteer firefighter.

He will be awarded his star in February, when his children can be there with wife Jennifer to take in the moment.

Mr Baker (and his brothers) has retired from the carpet business, but he is still a firefighter “for the foreseeable future”.

But he admits the time is coming when he and Jennifer will be able to take some time off and he will not have to keep an eye on his paper or await a text message.

More than one holiday has been interrupted.

Mr Baker said he returned from the Rakaia Gorge once after looking at his pager three times.

Once, he could not return.

He was in Fiji and looked at his phone to discover a flood callout to his home in Allenton.

“The lady next door was looking after the place and noticed condensation on the windows. She rang a friend, and he rang Ken, my brother. Then he got hold of the brigade.

“They did a really great job; lifted out the carpets, carted them out. They cleaned it all up for us. They did a great job,” Mr Baker said.

Mr Baker joined the brigade when he was 18. His father, Percy, had been the fire chief.

At that time, Mr Baker was a cabinet-maker in the family business.

As a boy living in Burnett Street, like many other boys, the young Baker had watched as fire engines went out and came back.

In his early days in the brigade, it was run by the council, then later taken over the Fire Commission, and there were around 80 to 100 callouts a year.

“There was a Ford V8, the Dennis (engine) and trailer pump.”

A bell on a gantry (now at the Plains Museum) alerted the 20-odd volunteers to a fire or emergency.

Now, volunteers have pagers and are sent text messages, though a siren still sounds.

Mr Baker said the time had flown.

He had made friends for life.

“We look after each other on the fire ground; we become firm friends.”

Mr Baker said he had attended some incidents he would rather forget – fatal fires and accidents – but he had missed some serious ones, too.

He said the Fire Service had plenty of support in place for anyone affected by a disturbing incident, and there were always debriefs after major incidents.

Those attending, say, fatal incidents, were contacted several days after the incident to ensure they were coping and, if they were not, help was sought.

Mr Baker said the worst fires were the one at his own business, one involving a power board building, and the fire that tore up the Ashburton River.

“House fires are always hard because it’s someone’s property. There was one at Hinds. The lady had gone to Christchurch. It was gutted – trying to comfort people.

“There was an accident where a car hit a bridge at Hinds. We worked really hard to get the driver out. A surgeon had to amputate a leg and he died soon after. It’s pretty heart-breaking.”

Ashburton was fortunate with the firefighters it had and the generosity of businesses and families.